Just five days after he reached the United States, the 15-year-old Honduran boy awoke in his Tucson, Arizona, immigrant shelter one morning in 2015 to find a youth care worker in his room, tickling his chest and stomach.
When he asked the man, who was 46, what he was doing, the man left. But he returned two more times, rubbing the teen’s penis through his clothing and then trying to reach under his boxers. “I know what you want, I can give you anything you need,” said the worker, who was later convicted of molestation.
In 2017, a 17-year-old from Honduras was recovering from surgery at the shelter when he woke up to find a male staff member standing by his bed. “You have it very big,” the man said, referring to the teen’s penis. Days later, that same employee brushed the teen with his hand while he was playing video games. When the staff member approached him again, the boy locked himself in a bathroom.
And in January of this year, a security guard at the shelter found notes in a minor’s jacket that suggested an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.
Pulled from police reports, incidents like these at Southwest Key’s Tucson shelter provide a snapshot of what has largely been kept from the public as well as members of Congress — a view, uncolored by politics, of troubling incidents inside the facilities housing immigrant children.
Using state public records laws, ProPublica has obtained police reports and call logs concerning more than 70 of the approximately 100 immigrant youth shelters run by the U.S. Health and Human Services department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. While not a comprehensive assessment of the conditions at these shelters, the records challenge the Trump administration’s assertion that the shelters are safe havens for children. The reports document hundreds of allegations of sexual offenses, fights and missing children.
Zero-tolerance policy impact
The recently discontinued practice of separating children from their parents has thrust the youth shelters into the national spotlight. But, with little public scrutiny, they have long cared for thousands of immigrant children, most of them teenagers, although last year 17 percent were under 13. On any given day, the shelters in 17 states across the country house around 10,000 adolescents.
The more than 1,000 pages of police reports and logs detail incidents dating back to the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014 during the Obama administration. But immigrant advocates, psychologists and officials who formerly oversaw the shelters say the Trump administration’s harsh new policies have only increased pressures on the facilities, which often are hard-pressed to provide adequate staffing for kids who suffer from untold traumas and who now exist in a legal limbo that could shape the rest of their lives.
“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” said Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”
Southwest Key wouldn’t discuss specific incidents, but said in a statement that the company has a strict policy on abuse and neglect and takes every allegation seriously. HHS declined ProPublica’s requests to interview the refugee resettlement program’s director, Scott Lloyd. The agency released a statement saying it “treats its responsibility for each child with the utmost care” and has a “zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior” at the shelters.
But the reports collected by ProPublica so far show that in the past five years, police have responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses at shelters that primarily serve immigrant children. That number doesn’t include another 200 such calls from more than a dozen shelters that also care for at-risk youth residing in the U.S. Call records for those facilities don’t distinguish which reports related to unaccompanied immigrants and which to other youth housed on the property.
Psychologists who’ve worked with immigrant youth said the records likely undercount the problems because many kids might not report abuse for fear of affecting their immigration cases.
It’s unclear whether any of the children mentioned as victims in the reports were separated from their parents at the border, but the reports include several children as young as 6 years old. The government faced a court deadline Thursday to reunite the nearly 3,000 children who were separated from their parents. But the administration told the court that more than 700 of those children remain in shelters or foster care because their parents have already been deported or have been deemed ineligible for reunification for various reasons.
Not all the reports reveal abuse. The shelters are required to report any sexual allegation to the police and many reports detail minor incidents and horseplay not uncommon in American schools. For example, the BCFS International Children’s Shelter in Harlingen, Texas, called the police in February after one minor entered another’s room and rubbed a small styrofoam ball on the juvenile’s buttocks.
And, once secure in the shelters, some immigrant children report assaults that occurred not at the shelters, but in their home countries. Last November, a 14-year-old girl staying in a shelter in Irvington, New York, told staff she had been raped in Honduras by a man who was now in immigration custody.
But the reports show that the allegations of staff abuse and inappropriate relationships that occurred in Tucson aren’t isolated. In February, a 24-year-old youth care worker at KidsPeace in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was placed on administrative leave after kissing a teenage boy in the laundry room. Just over a year earlier, a 21-year-old staff member there was accused of kissing a 16-year-old girl in the hallway. The BCFS shelter in Harlingen was written up by state regulators in 2017 after a staff member flew to New York to visit a former resident. And at a Southwest Key shelter outside San Diego, reports show, a female employee who had been accused of kissing a juvenile quit after being confronted with information that the teenager had the woman’s Snapchat account written on a piece of paper.
KidsPeace wouldn’t discuss personnel matters but said “the safety and well-being of our young clients are our top priority.”
BCFS said the staff member was terminated for violating agency policy and that it has “very strict and clear boundaries for our staff.”
The reports also reveal dozens of incidents of unwanted groping and indecent exposure among children and teenagers at the facilities. Some kids fleeing threats and violence in their home countries arrived in the United States only to be placed in shelters where they faced similar dangers. In March, a 15-year-old boy at the Southwest Key shelter in Tucson reported that his roommate lifted up his legs as he was trying to go to sleep, made thrusting motions and said, “I’m going rape you.” And in late 2016, a 15-year-old at KidsPeace told police that another boy there had been forcing him to have oral sex. After an investigation, one teen was transferred to a more secure facility. (KidsPeace said it wouldn’t discuss specific information about kids in its care.)
While it’s difficult to get a complete count, the police reports show that children go missing or run away from the shelters roughly once a week. Several shelters, including Southwest Key’s Tucson facility, have seen a significant increase in missing person and runaway calls since the start of 2018. St. PJ’s Children’s Home in San Antonio, which primarily cares for immigrant children, has had 26 such calls in the first half of the year, records show, compared to 14 for all of last year and nine for 2016.
St. PJ’s Children’s Home responded after publication and said its spike in runaways involves U.S. children, not immigrant youth.
The police reports also raise questions about how Southwest Key, the largest operator of immigrant shelters, handles such incidents. In the molestation case involving the 46-year-old staffer, police had obtained edited surveillance footage but later sought a complete, unedited version. Southwest Key, however, had taped over the footage. And in another case, police noted that Southwest Key refused to give officers records from an internal investigation.
Southwest Key CEO Juan Sánchez declined an interview. The Texas-based nonprofit has received more than $1.3 billion in federal grants and contracts in the past five years for the shelters and other services. Jeff Eller, a spokesman, said, “We cooperate with all investigations.”
Government officials and advocates say most immigrant youth shelters were never intended to house children long-term. But in recent weeks, the average length of stay has climbed to 57 days from 34 days just two years ago.
Maria Cancian, deputy assistant secretary for policy at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families from 2015 to 2016, said typically the shelters only housed immigrant kids for the “honeymoon period” when they first arrived in the U.S.
“The kids didn’t have a chance to get bored and ornery,” she said. “The longer kids are there, the more trouble you’re going to have, and the more opportunities there are for relationships to evolve in ways that are more challenging.”
Cancian, who served under President Obama, said the shelters were well run when she was there. “But if you’re serving 65,000 children in a year,” she said, “there are going to be some bad incidents.”
Genesis of immigrant kid shelters
The network of federally funded shelters sprang up after HHS took over the responsibility of caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the border in 2003. For most of their existence, the shelters received little attention, serving fewer than 8,000 children a year. But in 2014, that number surged to nearly 60,000 as a flood of teenagers fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador sought asylum in the U.S.
The shelters — whose operators have been paid about $4 billion over the past five years — were designed as temporary way stations, where new arrivals could get acclimated while staffers tried to locate family members who could care for them while their immigration cases wound through the courts.
There are now approximately 100 shelters scattered from Seattle to suburban New York, but concentrated in Texas and Arizona. They range from old motels to stand-alone homes, from a converted Walmart to a former estate set amid mansions, where on a recent day a deer could be seen prancing through the leafy grounds.
The worker who was convicted of molesting the boy in Tucson isn’t the only shelter employee to face criminal charges. Last year, according to court records, a youth care worker at a Homestead, Florida, shelter was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she sent nude photos of herself to a 15-year-old boy who had recently left the shelter and asked him for sex. In 2012, a case manager at a Fullerton, California, shelter was convicted of molesting several teenage boys when they went into his office for regular calls with family, court records show.
The shelters must complete background checks complying with both federal standards and state licensing requirements. They are overseen by an overlapping system of regulators that ostensibly provides a lot of enforcement tools. When incidents occur, shelters are required to alert the police and the ORR. They may also have to notify state agencies that license child-care facilities.
A large part of the current pressure on the shelters stems from a series of changes made by the Trump administration in how it handles unaccompanied minors, immigrant advocates say.
As part of an information-sharing agreement, the ORR is now required to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement with potential sponsors’ names, dates of birth, addresses and fingerprints so that ICE can pull criminal and immigration history information on the sponsor, usually a family member, and all adult members of the sponsor’s household.
ProPublica reporters Caroline Chen, Justin Elliott, Lisa Song, Talia Buford, Kavitha Surana, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa Eldeib and researchers Claire Perlman, Decca Muldowney and Alex Mierjeski contributed to this report. This is an excerpt of the original story published Friday, July 27, 2018, by ProPublica. Read the full story here.
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